UW grants degree to late student undaunted by terminal cancer
The University of Washington has granted a rare posthumous degree to Nolan Roquet, a student who died from bone cancer.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
He was one of the smartest kids in his high school, with a near-perfect score on the SAT. At the University of Washington, he made the engineering school dean's list, and in his senior year he was recommended for admission to graduate school at Stanford and MIT.
Nolan Roquet couldn't imagine any better place to spend the last four years of his life than college, where he thrived on the intellectual challenges, shared a dorm room with some of his best friends, planned his future as a mechanical engineer, helped lead his church community group and fell in love.
Yet during those four years, Nolan was dogged by an aggressive form of bone cancer that would eventually kill him.
Doctors amputated his knee joint and part of his femur, then performed successive operations to remove growths of cancerous tissue in his lungs. For four years, he took a variety of chemotherapy drugs. One drug turned his hair white, his skin nearly translucent.
In September, just a few credits shy of the number he needed to graduate, Nolan Roquet died. He was 24 years old.
Despite cancer, he had spent his college years shouldering a demanding schedule of engineering courses. He had volunteered at his church, and at the Ronald McDonald House for families whose children are hospitalized with serious illnesses. He tutored high-school students on the SAT and traveled to the Caribbean and Europe.
And he married the love of his life, Kacie Kappenman.
"He lived his life like the cancer was just something incidental, an annoyance almost, that got in the way of his schoolwork," said Dr. Doug Hawkins, associate division chief of hematology/oncology at Seattle Children's, who treated Nolan for several years. "He was an amazingly strong person, with an incredibly strong family and a remarkable wife."
Above all, he was more concerned about how others were doing than about his own well-being, said his mother, Sandy.
In late December, by chance, UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce bumped into Nolan's mom while she was shopping — Sandy manages a clothing store, and Cauce was stocking up on purple outfits, which led to talk of the Huskies and then to Nolan. When she heard how close he had been to getting his degree, Cauce arranged for Nolan to receive something that's only given out once or twice a year at the UW — a posthumous degree.
And so last month, three months after he died, Nolan graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington.
"I want to finish ... "
Long before cancer interrupted his life, Nolan was a star athlete and top student with a perennially positive attitude. Among his friends at Seattle Christian High School, he was "the glue that kept them all together" — keeping an email list before there was Facebook so everyone could stay in touch, mom Sandy said.
Nolan started at the UW in 2006, where his parents, Sandy and Kyle, had also gone to school. At first, he wanted to go into medicine or bioengineering.
Then, in the summer after his freshman year, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that also afflicted Terry Fox, a Canadian runner who famously ran across Canada on a prosthetic leg to raise money for research. Fox died in 1981.
Nolan opted for a form of surgery that would preserve some of his leg. After he was fitted with a prosthesis, the focus of his studies shifted to mechanical engineering, because he saw the need for better artificial limbs. "Some of his drive was that he wanted to make some kind of contribution to medicine, to help amputees," Sandy said.
In his journal in 2009, he wrote: "I decided to return to school and continue chemo. I want to finish what I have been working on as long as I am able to do so in good conscience."
In family pictures, Nolan shows his playful side — mugging for the camera with a bald head and a fake mustache. Nolan goofing off with his friends in a corridor of Children's hospital — he's hooked up to tubes, his friends are all riding children's bicycles. Nolan with his arm encircling Kacie at their wedding.
In every picture, he wears a wide, joyful smile — even in some of the last photos taken, when a cancer drug had turned his hair white and left him rail-thin.
People would ask him why he had no hair, or why his hair was white, and he'd just kid around. "He'd say, 'It's chemically induced.' He would just make light of it," Sandy said.
High-school friend Jonathan Blackstock said others would sometimes talk about how many months Nolan had left to live, but "I never heard any of that from Nolan," he said. "He knew things were getting bad and he wasn't going to get better, but that didn't slow him down or discourage him."
In February 2011, he wrote: "School has been underway a for a few weeks now, and no complications there. Being back is one of the ways I am becoming future-mindful again."
For much of his college career, Nolan lived on campus with friends, many of whom had been close since high school. "Those boys were amazing — they even took care of his wounds after surgery," said mom Sandy.
Honeymoon in Europe
In summer 2010 Nolan met Kacie, a University of Washington student and a community group leader at Mars Hill Church in the University District. Nolan's big heart, his joy for life and his passion won her over, she said.
Nolan's cancer went into a kind of technical remission, and the two were engaged in 2011. That fall, Nolan got word from both Stanford and MIT that he had been admitted to graduate school.
But in December 2011, the cancer had returned — spreading throughout his body.
He and Kacie decided to get married the next month. They honeymooned in Hawaii. In the summer, even though the cancer had significantly weakened Nolan's lungs, the couple took a five-week trip to Europe.
"Somehow his health just held up — he was going around Europe, walking all day," Kacie said. "It was amazing."
Nolan died Sept. 4.
The university saw the intellectual side of Nolan's life. "I think what you choose to do, knowing you are at your life's end, says a lot about where your passions lie," said Cauce, the provost. "His were with learning and discovery."
His family and friends saw Nolan's deeply spiritual side.
"For anyone who would listen, he would tell them about Jesus and how he had hope he would go somewhere else when he died," Kacie said. "That's the most encouraging thing about him — until the day he died, he was telling people about Jesus."
At Children's, Nolan was close in age to many of the young nurses and doctors. "That made it particularly poignant — he was someone who seemed a lot like us," said Dr. Hawkins. He touched people there because of "his grit, his determination to treat the cancer, but also to make sure he was doing the other things that a young adult should be doing in his life."
Said Hawkins: "I think maybe the life lesson is that cancer doesn't define you — any illness doesn't define you. The way you live your life is everything about your life."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.
Information in this article, originally published Jan. 1, 2013, was corrected Jan. 2, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly said Nolan Roquet was admitted to graduate school at Stanford and MIT.